Clause 1 - Authorisation of criminal conduct

Part of Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill – in the House of Commons at 2:00 pm on 15th October 2020.

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Photo of James Sunderland James Sunderland Conservative, Bracknell 2:00 pm, 15th October 2020

I am grateful to be called so early in this key debate, having been unable to speak on Second Reading. I therefore wish, if I may, to speak in general terms.

The first duty of any Government is to protect their people from harm. It is called defence of the realm. Given that that overrides all other considerations, we need to see the Bill in the context of the many existential threats that we face on a daily basis, many of which are hidden in the shadows and may never reveal themselves until it is too late. We also need to consider those we trust to keep us safe by empowering, not inhibiting, what they do. Our security services are only ever as good as the tools that their operators are given and the legal framework in which they work. Not only is the Bill a necessary piece of legislation in its own right; it provides a further insurance policy against those who seek to destroy the freedoms and the democracy that we take for granted.

Having personally served in uniform, I am comfortable that the Government continue to do what they must to give our intelligence services what they need to do their job. By allowing criminal conduct authorisations in the pursuit of covert human intelligence sources, the Bill rightly maintains the services’ operating freedoms, allowing them to close on those who threaten us and bring them to justice. But let us be clear: these powers are to be used only in extremis, when the operational circumstances necessitate, when quick decisions are needed or when there is no other way to avoid compromise.

To think that our operators are naturally predisposed to committing murder, torture or sex crimes, or that the Bill somehow encourages them to do so, is just wrong. The need to exercise discretion and judgment lies at the heart of what we ask our services to perform. Not only are these people good at what they do, they intuitively know the difference between right and wrong, so it is right that a CCA may be granted where necessary for one of three purposes: national security, the prevention or detection of crime, and in the interests of the economic wellbeing of the UK. I am happy, too, that under clause 2 only responsible bodies, such as the police, the National Crime Agency, the Serious Fraud Office or the security services, will be entrusted to do so, albeit with further work needed beyond the scope of the Bill on appropriate operating procedures.

I also agree with my friends on the Opposition Benches that, for example, rules of engagement might be provided in each particular case, and that there is further work to do. Under clause 4, the Investigatory Powers Commissioner will exercise oversight of all authorising bodies, not least to ensure that unlimited powers to commit any crimes are never granted and to rightly prosecute where criminality occurs.

I noted on Second Reading that the Secretary of State was continually pressed on which practices might be exempt or otherwise. His stance that it would not be appropriate to draw up a list of specific crimes is right, for to do so would place in the hands of criminals, terrorists and hostile states a means of identifying our agents and sources, creating a potential checklist for suspected operators to be tested against. The Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee also recognised how easy it would be for groups to flush out agents if they were aware of human intelligence being prohibited from certain acts, calling it “ dangerously counterproductive”. Although my own knowledge of covert operations is limited, I can tell Members that the work is difficult and dangerous.